Rates of Child Abuse and Child Exposure to Domestic Violence

Key Talking Points
  • An alarming number of children are maltreated or exposed to domestic violence in the United States each year.
  • Approximately four million referrals for alleged maltreatment are made to child protective agencies each year.
  • Researchers have estimated that between 3.3 million and 10 million children are exposed to adult domestic violence each year.
  • One researcher has estimated conservatively that at least 10 to 20 percent of children are exposed to intimate partner violence annually, with as many as one-third exposed at some point during childhood or adolescence.

Child Abuse and Neglect 

In 2015, approximately four million referrals for alleged maltreatment were made to child protective agencies (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2015). From these, an estimated 683,000 children in the United States were officially documented as having been maltreated. Children from birth to age three had the highest rate of victimization (27.7 percent), and slightly more than half of all victims were girls (50.9 percent).  Physical abuse was second to neglect in overall prevalence. These figures represent just a fraction of all abuse and neglect in that year, with numerous acts of child maltreatment going unreported to protective service agencies.


Child Exposure to Domestic Violence

Prevalence data on children’s exposure to domestic violence also are concerning, but reported estimates vary widely (Edleson, 1999; Fantuzzo & Mohr, 1999; Osofsky, 2003). In the absence of a national survey focused directly on children’s exposure to domestic violence, the two most widely cited statistics were developed by Carlson (1984) and Straus (1992). Using survey data from the first National Family Violence Survey, conducted in 1975, Carlson estimated that at least 3.3 million children between the ages of three and 17 witness serious parental violence each year in the United States. She based this estimate on the number of households experiencing at least one incident of serious violence each year and then adjusted this finding for the estimated number of households with children (55 percent) and multiplied by two (the average number of children per household).

Straus (1992) estimated as many as 10 million teenagers are exposed to parental violence each year. His estimate is based on retrospective reports from adult respondents to the second National Family Violence Survey conducted in 1985. In this survey, adults were asked during their teenage years if their father or mother had hit the other parent and how often. Straus found that about 12.6 percent of the sample remembered such an incident, with 50 percent reporting their father hit their mother, 19 percent reporting their mother hit their father, and 31 percent reporting both hit the other.

Several retrospective studies of students and adults in the general population support these estimates. For example, Dong et al.’s (2004) investigation of adverse childhood experiences for 8,600 adult members of the Kaiser Health Plan found that 24 percent of those sampled recalled having been exposed to domestic violence before the age of 18. In that study, domestic violence exposure included individuals’ recollections of their fathers (or stepfathers) having abused (e.g., pushed, grabbed, slapped, hit, or threatened) their mothers (or stepmothers). Silvern et al.’s (1995) study of 550 college students recorded even higher rates of exposure, with 41.1 percent of the women and 32.3 percent of the men having witnessed abuse by one parent against another.

When reviewing the variations in these statistics, it is helpful to keep in mind that prevalence estimates generally are higher when definitions of domestic violence include psychological or emotional as well as physical aggression by one parent against the other, use lifetime rather than briefer periods of time, and are estimated in clinical samples (e.g., drawn from domestic violence shelters) rather than representative population-based samples (Carlson, 2000). Definitions of exposure to domestic violence also differ from one study to another, but common criteria include a child’s seeing or hearing violence; witnessing consequences such as injuries, household damage, and police involvement; or being aware of violence in the home (Edleson, 1999). Even with these caveats, one researcher has estimated conservatively that at least 10 to 20 percent of children are exposed to intimate partner violence annually, with as many as one-third exposed at some point during childhood or adolescence (Carlson, 2000).


Carlson, B.E. (1984). Children’s observations of interparental violence. In A.R. Roberts (Ed.), Battered women and their families (pp. 147-167). NY: Springer.

Carlson, B.E. (2000). Children exposed to intimate partner violence: Research findings and implications for intervention. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 1(4), 321-342.

Dong, M., Anda, R.F., Felitti, V.J., Dube, S.R., Williamson, D.F., Thompson, T.J., et al. (2004). The interrelatedness of multiple forms of childhood abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Child Abuse & Neglect, 28, 771-784.

Edleson, J.L. (1999). Children’s witnessing of adult domestic violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 14(8), 839-870.

Fantuzzo, J. & Mohr, W.K. (1999). Prevalence and effects of child exposure to domestic violence. The Future of Children, 9, 21-32.
Osofsky, J.D. (2003). Prevalence of children’s exposure to domestic violence and child maltreatment: Implications for preventions and intervention. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 6(3), 161-170.

Silvern, L., Karyl, J., Waelde, L., Hodges, W.F., Starek, J., & Heidt, E. (1995). Retrospective reports of parental partner abuse: Relationships to depression, trauma symptoms and self-esteem among college students. Journal of Family Violence, 10, 177-202.

Straus, M.A. (1992). Children as witnesses to marital violence: A risk factor for lifelong problems among a nationally representative sample of American men and women. Columbus, OH: Ross Laboratories.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2017). Child maltreatment, 2015. Washington, DC: Administration for Children and Families.


Resource Center on Domestic Violence: Child Protection and Custody.


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